Book review: Soccernomics

Want to learn more about soccer? There’s plenty of solid literature out there. I’m doing the hard part: reading everything I can and letting you know which are good reads and which are not.

ijVnAgAAQBAJSoccernomics By Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski

Soccernomics presents itself as a soccer version of Freakonomics, or Moneyball, or [insert Malcolm Gladwell pieces that’s not remotely as good as everyone thinks here], and in a lot of ways, it lives up to that billing. It sets out to dispel some of the common “wisdom” surrounding the beautiful game using statistical and economic analysis. The combined effort of Kuper (a journalist) and Szymanski (a sports economist) packs a solid combination of skillsets to get the job done.

From my perspective, there are also a few areas touched upon that are relevant to the specific interests of this site. For example, a discussion of building stadiums as a matter of municipal interest – surprise! there’s no money in it – is a topic that has been and will continue to be relevant to the Music City in the near future. The general concept of community engagement around sports teams is especially relevant for a major city adding a new team.

Some of the points, especially about England, also relate to the United States’ recent failure to make the World Cup (which happened after this edition of the book was published, and well after original editions). In England, the soccer player – traditionally from a working-class upbringing – considers middle-class players “soft” (not the word used, you can extrapolate your guess from the implications). The elimination of an entire socioeconomic class from the player pool is an issue. In the United States, it’s the lower class (through the pay-to-play system, and ironically when compared to England, the implication that soccer is too “soft” for players from non-middle-class backgrounds), but either way, it’s a problem. Especially when taking into account that many players from working-class backgrounds in our country come from black or latino communities, it ends up providing a racial component, as well. I’m not breaking new ground here, obviously, but it’s an interesting comparison to make after reading the book.

It’s not without faults – a lot of the arguments don’t appear to hold much water. They might if the trained economist (I am not one) provided more of the evidentiary basis for his assertions in the form of data. He does not: it is very much a book for the layperson with a “trust me” vibe about it. There are other times where within the span of a couple paragraphs, an entire important argument is absolutely contradicted. “There is no causal relationship between quality of the team on the field and money made by a team” is simply brushed away within a matter of paragraphs by making a point that a team that doesn’t spend its money will win less (which is proven to have validity as a maxim), and will therefore make less money. There is no attempt to reconcile the two points, or even acknowledge that they stand opposed to each other.

That’s where I feel the major failings of the book (and I don’t intend to overstate them – they are there, and sometimes major, but that only encompasses a small portion of the prose) lie. At times, it seems there’s a disconnect between the writing side and the economic analysis side, leading to some contradictions, whether in methodology or in translating from spreadsheet to paperback while maintaining the logical consistency throughout.

In the big picture, it feels more like a textbook for a course – and indeed Szymanski is a professor at my alma mater, the University of Michigan – designed to force the students to think, and probably have some very interesting banter with their professor. Not having the opportunity for some of that back-and-forth takes some of the value out of the book. If you’re the critical analytical type, it’s still fascinating to read about, but the debate and discussion aspects are lost.

The 2014 edition seemed to be updated only in a bit of new data from the original, rather than undergoing a rigorous edit to resolve some of the inconsistencies. There is a new 2018 World Cup edition out, which I expect is more of the same – though a chapter on the United States’ failure to qualify would be fascinating. Even without, there are signs in the 2014 edition that you can easily read in hindsight as pointing to said failure.

As a historical tome, especially for somebody who knows only the major events in soccer (original NASL, Hand of God, etc.), it’s very interesting. If you don’t know much about the history of the game and it’s spread, you’re absolutely going to learn a ton. As a thought-provoking group of points, even more so. As an infallible set of conclusions, it seems to fall short.

2 thoughts on “Book review: Soccernomics

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